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REAL – Fall/Winter 2012

In REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Billy Longino interviews Stewart O’Nan and extracts the following prescription: “I found that in a lot of the plotted fiction the plot was getting in the way of what I thought the novel does best: create depth and use time to illuminate character.” The interview explores O’Nan’s literary theory in compelling insight. Hearing the analysis also informs a reading of the rest of the journal, in which writers succeed in illuminating character.

In REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Billy Longino interviews Stewart O’Nan and extracts the following prescription: “I found that in a lot of the plotted fiction the plot was getting in the way of what I thought the novel does best: create depth and use time to illuminate character.” The interview explores O’Nan’s literary theory in compelling insight. Hearing the analysis also informs a reading of the rest of the journal, in which writers succeed in illuminating character.

For example, Katrina Denza explores a relationship that has ended with a powerful counterpoint of the protagonist’s care for capuchin monkeys. Her work might qualify for what O’Nan calls “plotted,” but the framework and pacing are ultimately so successful that you are grateful for the order because you are drowning in the protagonist’s loss, as she is. The attention to detail aligns you with her. If Denza pursued a less structured approach, you might not recognize the stages of grieving, the barbed detail that describes the particles of food drifting in dishes that no one had the passion to wash. Her story “What it Takes to Let Go” perfectly complements O’Nan’s general observation: “[It] speak[s] to the promise of America. That promise that Americans make to Americans and how we sometimes fool ourselves in terms of those promises, the expectations that we have, and the idea that we are Americans.”

In Denza’s story, we recognize an especially (but not exclusively) American malady, the death of a union because of the narcissism of the one who can best manipulate a selection of other marital wrecks. Denza gives you none of this detail, of course. She simply tells the story of a woman who cares for animals at a zoo, a woman of tremendous love and feeling, whose expectations almost topple her.

A counterpoint to Denza’s story is Carol K. Howell’s “Attached,” which might be perceived as a fairly graphic sexual tale of two older characters who love robustly, and, with some detail, physically. Love has and will always be somewhat romanticized; for millennia writers have sought to say what Howell says specifically instead by metaphor, and perhaps the death of poetry is really the fact that writing about sex can now be explicit, almost clinical:

They clutch and grind together, his mouth an open sneer of pain. She bumps him hard, drawing a gasp, then clamps down to wring every bit of pleasure she can for him. After all, he’s not getting five of them. He jerks, seizes. She clenches, grips. Locked together, they groan.

What makes this story awesome is the fact that it breaks a different taboo, one of the last taboos of our literary age, the taboo against women having a sexual life after age forty. And the fact that the two main characters are older (we don’t know exactly how old, which is a great device) and fall asleep in each other’s arms is incredibly iconoclastic, and a fine end to the volume’s prose selection.

Ben Hoffman opens the volume with “The Great Deschmutzing,” which captures a different stage of life with certain fine inventions. His ability to weave in and out of the second person is masterful, and the ending, with a five-column list, is unforgettable. The adaptation of the Yiddish is measured—a reader might guess that the tradition, adapted, is part of the idea behind the story, that the characters are moving, evolving, the way that the word “schmutz” has and does in this story. I liked the gentility of that engagement; Hoffman doesn’t come close to playing identity politics. In fact, Hoffman gives voice to a woman managing spheres of disaster—disasters and challenges that transcend all of the realms of protected classes. His eye for detail is perfect: the vortex of sex and love spins across the lives of so many of the characters, even the dead father to whom she speaks. And yet the story is funny despite the heartbreak, which is usually how it can be for loss, however unusual it is to capture the intensity of broken-hearted humor when it’s happening.

The poetry in this journal uniformly succeeds at creating art from recognizable forms. In other words, the poems speak to a particular fact pattern and create significance in clear syntax. I noted no obscure references, no surreal departures, a kind of even pacing as if you are traversing one of those broad Texan flatlands. In terms of branding, that kind of consistency sets a journal aside, because if you enjoy conversational poetry you might have found your homeland. In this way, the poetry in REAL is exactly that: clean, ordered, chiseled, and realistic art. And there is certainly a place for that precision on my bookshelf.
[real.sfasu.edu]

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